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July 22, 2023

All You Need to Know About Slapstick Comedy as a Screenwriter

Slapstick is a type of physical comedy, mainly based around cartoonish violence. It’s often considered a low-humour style of comedy. However, it is still very popular and was made famous by comedians such as The Three Stooges before it became the signature style of actors like Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey. Slapstick is also much older than you might think.

Let’s break down everything screenwriters need to know about slapstick comedy.

What is a slapstick comedy?

Slapstick comedy is primarily a physical kind of comedy – meaning it’s more action than words. For screenwriters, this means focusing on actions rather than dialouge. 

In the early days especially, many slapstick comedians didn’t talk. Although considered low-humour, this comedy style requires excellent timing, animated facial expressions, and potentially acrobatic skill to pull it off well.

These types of slapstick jokes are characterized by their visual nature. Slapstick comedy often involves one character getting hurt, usually in the form of a physical injury or attack (hence the name). The mild comic violence elements of slapstick comedy might include smacks on the head, pokes in the eyes, and people falling down.

An early example of slapstick comedy is The Three Stooges. The comedy group is considered the masters of slapstick, with comedy routines based almost entirely around hitting one another and falling down. The tone of slapstick comedy is usually light-hearted and cheerful, goofy and hilarious. It can also be quite raunchy too.

What is the purpose of slapstick comedy?

Despite its reliance on mild cartoonish violence, slapstick comedy is not intended to be mean-spirited or cruel. A criticism of slapstick is that some people find it hard to laugh at slapstick because they feel sorry for the people getting hurt. However, defenders argue that's the nature of slapstick: it's meant to make you laugh at situations that would typically make you feel bad.

Slapstick comedy origins

Slapstick is a traditional form of comedy. Its roots go as far back as Ancient Greece and Rome, and it was a popular form of mime in the theatres of the day. The term “slapstick” originates from the Italian batacchio (or bataccio) – a two-piece paddle that would produce a slapping sound when the two pieces hit.

Actors used the board to accentuate the impact of a hit (often on another actor’s backside) repeatedly with great audible effect while causing no damage and only minimal (if any) pain. The slapstick, along with the inflatable bladder (the whoopee cushion is a modern variant), were among the earliest special effects during this time.

By the late 1800s, slapstick surged in popularity when audiences were treated to hilarious actors performing acrobatics and intentionally harming themselves (without any real damage, of course). The comedians were popular because they were masters of timing and comedic illusion, much like the slapstick comedians and actors of today. The character of Punch from the Punch and Judy puppet show is also one of the best-known slapstickers as the comedic style surged in popularity.

Slapstick comedy over the years

When movies were first invented, they were, of course, silent. Therefore slapstick comedy worked perfectly as it was still visually funny. Even when sound was introduced, slapstick movies still made people laugh. In the early 20th century, slapstick followed onto the big screen, with memorable characters like the Keystone Cops and the one-man slapstick master Charlie Chaplin. 

A black and white portrait of a young Charlie Chaplin wearing a suit.
Sir Charlie Chaplin (1889 - 1977), the master of slapstick

This was followed by another mid-century slapstick revival with legends like The Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, and Laurel and Hardy taking centre stage. A more contemporary example of slapstick is MTV’s Jackass, where the performers took low humour and violence to a new level.

Slapstick comedy examples in film and television

Slapstick has remained popular throughout most of film history. Advanced movie-making techniques over the years allowed filmmakers to create even more violent and graphic stunts like explosions and physical fights. Famous slapstick movies include Airplane!, The Naked Gun, and Home Alone. Cartoons and animated TV shows like The Simpsons, South Park and Family Guy also feature slapstick comedy. The style is still used in contemporary films like Blades of Glory.

Famous slapstick comedy comedians

Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd are widely considered the masters of slapstick comedy. Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean character is also a brilliant example of pure slapstick finding lasting success with modern audiences and Mr Bean of course pays homage to silent comedians like Charlie Chaplin as he doesn’t speak.

Slapstick comedy actor: Adam Sandler

Adam Sandler’s slapstick and sarcastic comedic style have cemented him as a contemporary slapstick king who never stops honing his craft, even after years of comedy. Sandler is set apart by his spontaneity, unpredictability, and natural flair for slapstick humour. Some of Adam Sandler’s best slapstick movies with hilarious slapstick scenes include Happy Gilmore, Billy Madison, Mr Deeds, The Waterboy, Hubie Halloween, 50 First Dates, Big Daddy, Little Nicky and The Wedding Singer.

A picture of Hollywood actor Adam Sandler wearing a tux.
Adam Sandler employs slapstick in many of his characters

Slapstick comedy actor: Jim Carrey

Carrey’s energetic slapstick performances surged in popularity in the 1990s, and he has remained a favorite slapstick master thanks to his humour and comical antics. Some movies where Jim Carrey proved that he is one of the best comedy legends include The Mask, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Dumb and Dumber, Me, Myself & Irene, and Bruce Almighty.

Slapstick comedy actor: Jackie Chan

Jackie Chan’s incredible martial arts skills provide a perfect fusion of seriously impressive fight scenes with silly humour. Slapstick is perfectly integrated with action through Chan’s incredible filmography. Jackie Chan’s slapstick highlights feature in movies including Police Story (and sequels), Rumble in the Bronx, Rush Hour and Shanghai Noon.

Slapstick comedy is a genre worth considering

Slapstick comedy is easily identifiable thanks to its action-based gags and over-the-top style. Funny falls and comedic slaps are the best tools of humour for some audiences who love its simple, light-hearted nature. Slapstick is a comedy style that’s been around for over a century and shows no signs of slowing down, as the humour is alive and well in TV shows and movies today.

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All You Need to Know About Slapstick Comedy as a Screenwriter
Danielle Owen-Jones

Danielle Owen-Jones is a professional writer and the author of two romantic comedies, Stone Broke Heiress and Stuck With Him, published worldwide by Bookouture (Hachette UK). Danielle worked in journalism and PR before launching a freelance content writing business alongside writing her novels.

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